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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel hosted a virtual town hall with Kevin Hegarty, executive vice president and chief financial officer; Pamela Gabel, executive director of the Shared Services Center; and Robert Ernst, executive director of University Health Service to discuss plans for the fall semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The University announced in late June that students would return to campus for a public health-informed semester. The virtual event attracted over 5,000 students, faculty, staff and community members.
Schlissel opened the town hall acknowledging the challenges everyone is facing during this time.
“I'm 62 years old and I’ve never lived through a period like this,” Schlissel said. “You know, there are individuals that are always suffering from something going on in their lives, but to have our entire society — not just here in our country –– but all around the world.”
Schlissel emphasized the importance of the University’s mission to serve students and the community amid the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“The mission of the University is important,” Schlissel said. “That’s why we’re working so hard to keep it being delivered at as high and effective a level as possible. We educate, we do research and we provide clinical care and we provide all other kinds of service to the state and the nation and the world.”
Schlissel said while the University plans to have a public health-informed, in-residence semester, about 70 percent of classes will be fully delivered through a virtual format to promote social distancing guidelines issued by the governor.
“Although we’re up and running, 70 or so percent of our student credit hours are going to be fully online,” Schlissel said. “The campus won’t be operating completely normal for the sake of identifying and diminishing the numbers of people that crowd together to promote everybody’s safety … (and) we’re backed up by one of the world’s greatest health systems.”
Schlissel discussed some of the components of the newly configured bus system on campus.
“Our engineers measured airflow in our buses, and they were able to build a model that let them calculate how many people can safely ride on a bus,” Schlissel said. “They all have to wear a mask; you won’t be allowed on without a mask. The duration of a trip will not exceed 15 minutes because time is a big factor in terms of exposure. Everyone will have to be seated.”
Ernst spoke about several mitigation strategies being implemented and how his experience working at the University hospital has informed the solutions the University is applying to the campus at large.
“We have developed some of these mitigation strategies that the president (was) just talking about,” Ernst said. “I think the universal masking strategy has really strong evidence to support intervention. I think the environmental controls that have been put in place have been very thoughtful…. I go to the hospital one day a week and see patients there still, so it’s been really quite impressive how the health system has re-energized itself and pivoted back to its usual work. So I think…the importance is consistency with some of these mitigation strategies to prevent person to person spread.”
Employees sent an open letter to the University prior to the meeting about their concerns with the reopening plan. Among the issues addressed was testing. The letter references a study which found universities need to implement frequent universal testing to pull off a fall semester safely. The letter cites Harvard, the University of Illinois and Massachusetts Institute of Technology as examples of schools with more rigorous testing regimes in line with the study’s recommendations.
“The lack of a critical analysis is particularly distressing given the fact that at least one peer-reviewed study seems to suggest that U-M’s current plan may carry unacceptable risks,” the letter read. “This study … concluded that frequent universal testing is the key to containment. Acceptance of this conclusion is now widespread. The University of Illinois is requiring a test of every person (symptomatic or not) on campus, twice a week, and isolation of the infected. Harvard, MIT, and others are employing similar plans.”
In response, Schlissel explained the role of testing in the University’s response and the limitations to more frequent testing.
“(Testing is) one of many tools we’re deploying. Testing all by itself only identifies people who are sick. (It) doesn't prevent disease, per se, it tells you if you’re sick,” Schlissel said. “So it has to be deployed as part of an overall strategy. Our game plan is to test incoming students who will be living in our dorms, recognizing that we have a special responsibility for students living in our own built environment, and we’ll be testing them before they arrive.”
Schlissel noted the University doesn’t have limitless amounts of on-demand testing for asymptomatic community members. He also addressed the testing regimes being used at other universities, saying they do not use tests that have been properly vetted.
“Some other universities have developed research tests, many of which are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration,” Schlissel said. “They can be done on massive numbers of people inexpensively. The challenge is they haven’t yet been done, so it hasn’t been proven yet that it really is effective, and there are questions about how sensitive the test is. What I’m nervous about is deploying a test that may only be right 50 percent of the time.”
Schlissel emphasized the gravity of the revenue losses facing the University and the measures taken to reduce the financial burden.
“We had to introduce a broad array of austerity of measures in an effort to diminish our losses, so I’d roughly say we’ve lost tens of millions of dollars on the University side and hundreds of millions of dollars on the health system side,” Schlissel said. “However, we’ve helped stabilize our finances a number of ways. In particular, there’s a pretty tight hiring freeze.”
Schlissel also discussed other ways the University has been working to cut spending over the past several months.
“We’ve gotten rid of non-essential spending, we’re hiring few — if any — consultants,” Schlissel said. “We're really trying to tighten our own belts absolutely to the full extent possible, and the reason why is the only other thing left are us, people.”
Schlissel concluded by acknowledging that running an in-person semester of any kind during the pandemic includes a certain degree of risk.
“Nothing we’re doing right now, apart from work or at work is risk free, we just don’t have that luxury,” Schlissel said. “So I want to let you know that I really truly appreciate you sticking with us, working hard, honoring the mission of the University with your commitment to the success of our students and our research and clinical care enterprise.”
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